Just a short taxi ride from Sheung Shui railway station can be found the secluded 400-acre premises of The Hong Kong Golf Club which provide a welcome haven of peace from the hectic pace of day-to-day city life. With its three 18-hole golf courses, swimming pools, tennis courts and range of dining facilities, the club offers members the perfect location for sport, relaxation and a place to get away from it all for a few precious hours.
"It is a very pleasant environment to work in," says Sue Sue Tong, clubhouse manager of The Hong Kong Golf Club's Fanling operation, who fortunately has the chance to improve her own golf when she is not on duty.
This, though, only comes after dealing with her heavy workload. Ms Tong is responsible for running all aspects of the clubhouse and oversees food and beverage operations, accommodation and the front desk.
Despite the variety of duties, Ms Tong identifies managing staff as her key task. "Facilities and staff are what a club is all about," she explains. "It is important to make your staff happy so they appear relaxed as they work and serve customers." She believes that, as long as staff enjoy their work, they will perform well and deliver the best level of service for club members.
A clubhouse usually depends on retaining well-trained and experienced staff since stability and familiar faces help to cultivate a friendly atmosphere and in building personal relationships with members. One exemplary member of staff has been working in the clubhouse for over 30 years and served four generations of members from the same family. Ms Tong herself has, so far, only completed 17 years of dedicated service!
"Facilities and staff are what a club is all about"
In some ways, running a clubhouse is similar to running a hotel. Both involve three main operations - food and beverage, housekeeping and front desk. A career may start in any one of these sections or, in the case of a golf club, even as a caddy.
Ms Tong got her own start in the business in Switzerland, an acknowledged centre of excellence for the hospitality industry. After attending an international school in Geneva, she trained for four years at a prestigious hotel school in Lausanne and gained extensive work experience in Europe before accepting the chance to transfer to a high-profile restaurant in San Francisco. "I learned there how good marketing and public relations can be almost more important than the food itself," she recalls.
Since returning to Hong Kong, she has seen in detail how running a club is different. Firstly, the main purpose of a hotel as a commercial organisation is to make a profit while a clubhouse is only required to maintain a balance of income and expenditure. "As a private clubhouse, the service level is our bottom line," Ms Tong says.
Secondly, since a clubhouse tends to serve the same group of members rather than a changing clientele, customer satisfaction is even more important. "We must satisfy our members' requirements. If they have a complaint about service today, they will expect it to be fixed tomorrow," Ms Tong notes. Close attention must always be paid to upgrading facilities so as to maintain a balance between providing modern services and preserving traditional standards.
To succeed in the field, Ms Tong emphasises the importance of good communication and language skills. She is multilingual and fluent in six languages. An outgoing personality and positive attitude also help greatly. "For example, we should never take members' complaints as complaints but as suggestions to help us do things better," she says.
While knowledge and experience in the hospitality industry are a definite advantage, Ms Tong also stresses the importance of in-house training. This is because a clubhouse, especially one with a long history, usually has its own culture and traditions.
In offering advice, Ms Tong states that a person should be prepared to work their way up from the bottom. "It is a prerequisite for an executive housekeeper to know how to make a bed and clean a room," she notes. "Similarly, to be a captain, you first need to know how to be a waiter." There are no exceptions to the rule. Even as clubhouse manager, Ms Tong insists on understanding the daily work of all her staff and their difficulties.
As new golf clubs open in mainland China, more job opportunities will be created. Ms Tong says that, nowadays, some clubhouses in China feature world-class facilities but, perhaps, lack well-trained staff. Training, therefore, will be very important to improve standards and this may provide job openings for people from Hong Kong.
Although Ms Tong has no plans to move to the mainland, she generally recommends travel in China and elsewhere as a way to gain wider exposure, pick up new ideas and see what is happening there. "That is the best way to learn and keep up with changes," she says.